More than Consent: The Ennoblement of Sex
This fall, Rachel Notley, the Premier of Alberta, Canada, said, “Consent is the law in Alberta and under no circumstances will any child in Alberta be taught that they have to somehow accept illegal behavior in a sexual relationship. The end."
What prompted such an obvious, grandstanding assertion with which no one actually disagrees?
In a province where both Catholic and state schools receive public funding and so are required to meet government outcomes, the premier was slyly referring to draft proposals for a Catholic way of teaching the curriculum.
But why the grandstanding? Surely, she doesn’t think Catholics don’t believe in consent. Indeed, as my friend Brett Fawcett put it, “No One Believes in Consent More than Catholics Do.”
The trouble is that Catholics believe in more than consent.
In this correspondence between Calgary Catholic School District officials, superintendents reflected on various human sexuality concepts being taught to children that, they think, require some Catholic perspective.
The politicians, for their part, seized upon the superintendents' comments regarding consent, which included this paragraph:
It is problematic if an outcome dictates that consent is the major criterion required to engage in sexual activity or if consent is the only important factor listed when making good decisions about sexual activity. […] Legal consent is important but we guard against a reductionist view of our human sexuality that consent is the most important factor in decision making. […] Although consent is always necessary for sexual activity to be healthy, it is not the only threshold that needs to be met when considering choices regarding sexual activity and other important decisions.
While the logic of a “necessary but not sufficient condition” might elude some politicians, the Catholic perspective the superintendents seek to bring is simply a challenge to raise the standard. The state calls us to legal activity and risk management; the Church calls us to moral heroism and a life of virtue.
This was the context in which Bishop Emeritus of Calgary Fred Henry exhorted school trustees that Sex Ed should be much more than technical instructions, and expressed his confidence in our capacity for virtue: “We have to have a deep desire to do the right thing because this is for our own benefit. We have to cultivate this desire to do good works according to our capabilities.”
Governments tell us that “Partners must give and get consent every time they have sex”, but they do not tell us why. The Church invites us to consider the questions: What does a person’s capacity to consent reveal about free will? How does a free person act responsibly? Who is the human person who deserves to be treated a particular way? What is the basis of human value? And might it be that the only adequate way to relate to other persons is love?
During this recent clash between the Government of Alberta and the Catholic School Board, I was reading the new edition of Dietrich von Hildebrand’s book, In Defense of Purity: An Analysis of the Catholic Ideals of Purity and Virginity. In it, there was just one instance where I recognized the term “consent”. The context is a description of a pure person who “will never consent to anything incompatible in its quality with the light of holiness.” Such a person is not “corroded by the intoxicating poison of sex as its own end.”
Rather than meditating on lowest common denominators in ethical questions, Hildebrand opts to meditate on saints, or simply, good men. “The pure man,” he says, “is always characterized by a spirituality of a distinctive kind, which not only controls the vital and physical aspects of his being, but actually penetrates and spiritualizes them.” Put another way, the pure person guards against a reductionist view of sexuality by realizing that his sexuality is always an expression of his entire self, not just his body. This recognition raises sex to its proper dignity, to action befitting human beings who are free and responsible.
“In and with sex,” explains Hildebrand, “man, in a special sense, gives himself. Sex is, therefore, “ennobled” by the tenderness of generous love. To disregard this mutual self-gift as the criterion for sex would constitute, for Hildebrand, a deeply impoverished view.
Hildebrand would object to the ignoble vision of human sexuality the government intends to present to children partly because of how it promotes selfishness instead of generosity. (Curriculum concepts may include: Preventing conception, aborting babies, reproducing artificially, watching pornography, mutilating sexual organs, etc., etc.).
But as his widow Alice insists in her forward to the book, Hildebrand would not simply want to warn against every threat and danger of impurity. Instead, he invites us “to explore purity as a positive reality and only in light of its beauty to describe its contrary.”
In Defense of Purity presents this attractive, noble, and inspiring vision for human sexuality – it is now our task to translate this vision to younger audiences and creatively apply it to current affairs.
Amanda Achtman studied political science in her hometown of Calgary, Alberta in Canada. She recently completed an MA in John Paul II Philosophical Studies at the Catholic University of Lublin in Poland and has participated in programs hosted by: the Acton Institute, the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society, the Hildebrand Project, and the Philos Project.